“I Wonder What the Poor People Are Eating Tonight”

A short essay on Picasso, Pataphysics, and just about everything else.

Jessica Wildfire
Sep 28, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo by Ava Sol on Unsplash

ablo Picasso used to fire a revolver at his critics. He pulled this trick when they asked questions about the meaning of his paintings, etc. Picasso was a major asshole. And yet, he’s considered a genius.

A trip to Spain in my late 20s brought me to Picasso’s childhood home in Malaga. The home where he was born.

Little baby Picasso.

Thankfully, it hadn’t become a tourist trap. Far from it. You don’t see many Americans here, something I counted on.

And I wanted to remember everything. I touched everything they would let me. I breathed the air with intense purpose. And yet, all I can remember is standing in a dark wooden space. I remember the feeling.

What I remember is something…

Hearthen. Poor. Simple. Dark. It was barely lit, as if light just couldn’t quite get inside. Like this cover photo.

Like me. And most likely, like you.

Sometimes I wish Picasso would come back from the dead to deal with my haters. But you know, maybe he does. I’d like to think anyone who visits the house of Picasso is imbued with something special. Or maybe it’s just the Picasso Placebo effect. Either way, here’s a snapshot at what some of my critics have to say about my work:

“This is such a refreshing break from your usual caddy [sic] office politics.”

“What’s going on? You’ve really lost your edge.”

“Maybe you’re just jealous of your pretty friends. Here’s my advice: Try to have more fun.”

“Why does your profile pic show so much cleavage?”

“You need to brush up on your theory.”

“You sound like a very unhappy person.”

“This piece struck me as lame and egotistical. You’re a lazy hack of a writer.”

“This was poorly researched.”

“Stop telling other people what to do.”

When Pablo Picasso fired a revolver at his critics, they called it pataphysical humor. Imaginary solutions. He wasn’t really trying to kill anyone, just making a point. Hah hah. Ah, that Picasso…

The point stands. At the heart of pataphysics lies the idea that we can change the world by imagining a better future — through poetry, through literature, through science, through art.

As the French symbolist writer Alfred Jarry defined it, we can seize the imaginary as real:

The imaginary nature of things as glimpsed by the heightened vision of poetry or science or love can be seized and lived as real.

The gun was just a prop. Picasso’s real point: Don’t you dare ask me about the meaning of my paintings. What the paintings mean to me means nothing in the end. The meaning is for you.

There’s a small problem here for women. Firing a gun is unladylike — and I guess slightly illegal, especially for a woman. I mean, women are allowed to play around with guns and pose with them. Even own them. Actually using one to stop a rapist or an abuser, well, that’s complicated.

These hateful comments about my writing remind me of an important lesson, one that applies to the entire world, regardless of gender.

Some people won’t like you.

Others will dismiss you. And many more won’t even give you a fair shake. Maybe it’s because of your gender, skin tone, nationality, personality (disorder), or the sound of your voice.

And you can’t shoot them. Especially if you’re a woman.

Sometimes, the person who doesn’t like you holds a position of immense power over your future. What’s called for? A little pataphysical thinking. Using your art — your words — to offer up a better reality.

A prejudiced person decides whether to give you an interview, a job, a promotion, a raise, or accept your submission. They decide whether or not to answer your emails and phone calls.

A prejudiced person may direct your future.

And with that knowledge, you can choose three options: You can go home and cry. You can fuss. Or you can make real change. You can think up a better future and make it real. You can do that not just by fighting, by protesting, but by example. By being the absolute best you can — and seeing how your absolute best stacks up against the status quo.

That’s what oppressed groups have done throughout history. And history has shown that in the long game, it works.

“Never again will I ask for that hospitality,” wrote Virginia Woolf in 1929, after traveling to Cambridge for a lecture at the women’s college. They wouldn’t let her — a woman — walk on the grass.

They wouldn’t let her into the library to view a manuscript, without a male chaperone or “letter of introduction.”

She didn’t have either. And she didn’t bother coming back.

Woolf had just recently published To The Lighthouse, one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.

So you can imagine that she was a little pissed.

She would’ve been even more pissed if she’d known that Picasso, 46 at the time, was having sex with a 17-year-old while still living with his first wife — and hanging out with Salvador Dali.

Still, she admired Picasso. In 1937, she even lobbied to bring Guernica to Britain, in support of the anti-war movement.

Did she know about Picasso’s attitude toward women? Maybe. It wasn’t exactly a secret, just normalized —kept under a blind eye. Maybe she had no choice but to ignore his affairs with young women in the scope of a wider agenda. Maybe she, despite all her talent and affluence, felt powerless to call out such a towering figure, just like so many of us today.

Moments like this still resonate. Women are still trying to be taken seriously in the arenas of art, music, and literature. Women are allowed into libraries now. They’re allowed to write about wizards, and to play superheroes with most of their clothes on. More and more men are recognizing women’s talent — their contributions beyond sexy music videos. But is that it? I don’t think so. We still have work to do. We need to keep going.

Picasso was a major asshole, especially to women. Here’s what Picasso’s granddaughter had to say about him:

He submitted [women] to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.

— Marina Picasso

One of Picasso’s 7 great loves, Francoise Gilot, left him after ten years of abuse. Her life got a helluva lot better after that, even if Picasso did everything he could to sabotage her career. Marina wasn’t so lucky. She was the grandchild of the family who stayed.

It appears that Picasso made everything about him. Instead of empowering the men and women around him, he sucked the life out of them. He turned them into his servants.

He turned his own son into a chauffeur.

Picasso missed the real point of pataphysics — he imagined a heightened reality only for himself, and brought it into being. Others suffered to make his dreams come true. Only his dreams. And if that’s what it takes to make a Picasso, no thanks.

Many of us grew up on the lower end of the middle class, or slightly below the cutoff. A friend of mine remembers a saying from her family: “I wonder what the poor people are eating tonight.”

It was a saying one part gratitude, one part sympathy, one part irony, one part pride. When you said that, you were using a kind of Southern pataphysics — pray and pretend your way out of poverty.

If ever so briefly…

Maybe you didn’t care about the poor, except through the most superficial acts of charity. You sent your thoughts and prayers from the dinner table. They flew out like a boomerang, out to the real poor people — maybe the homeless — and then back to yourself. For a moment, you felt better. So my friend, at the age of 15, finally got tired of the act. She told her dad, “We’re eating okra sandwiches and cornbread.” And she got sent to her room.

Later her dad insisted, “We are not poor.”

And she pretended to apologize.

Many of us do our own version of wondering what the poor people are eating tonight— we try to accept less with a blend of humor and grace. We don’t really think about the implications.

All of these stories have stayed with me. About Picasso. His 7 wives. My friend. Virginia Woolf. They all dealt with pataphysics in some way. Just like us. We all think up a dream version of the world, and we do our best to make it real. Your dreamworld says a lot about you. Who’s in it? How are they doing? Are you leaving anyone out? Think hard. Because dreamworlds can and will become reality for everyone. That’s how pataphysics works. Don’t make other people pay the price for your dream.

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Jessica Wildfire

Written by

Unfluencer. jessica.wildfire.writer@gmail.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

Jessica Wildfire

Written by

Unfluencer. jessica.wildfire.writer@gmail.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

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